In praise of the Children’s Laureate

Today, a sizeable band of book lovers kept Twitter busy anticipating the announcement of the new Children’s Laureate.

In amongst Westminster gossip and news about who’s running for London mayor, #childrenslaureate managed to trend for a decent portion of the day.

The news that illustrator Chris Riddell was to be appointed the role for the next two years was greeted with much enthusiasm and it would be difficult to find any reason whatsoever to object to someone who’s made such a significant contribution to contemporary children’s literature.

He may not yet be a household name but Riddell’s accolades are fairly astonishing. He’s won two Kate Greenaway Medals for the best-illustrated children’s book and three Nestle Smarties Book Prizes for books that he’s either written or illustrated (because he does both).

He’s partnered with many well-known names in children’s literature, including the acclaimed Neil Gaiman, and also produces works alone. Even if you don’t have children, you may have come across his work in the Observer. He contributes a weekly political cartoon for the paper’s Comment section.

Something ElseWe have one of his books sitting on our shelves, Something Else illustrated by Riddell and written by Katherine Cave. This quirky outsider tale won the UNESCO Prize for Children’s and Young People’s Literature in the Service of Tolerance, and it certainly was one we returned to time and again for our bedtime reads. Katherine Cave’s writing is poignant and emotive but the illustrations do more than bring the story to life, they create a world for the words and the reader’s imagination.

Although I will seek out some more of Chris Riddell’s work following his Children’s Laureate appointment, the purpose of the role is not just to sell books. Instead the Children’s Laureate serves as an ambassador to promote children’s books and reading in whichever way they choose.

And the signs are encouraging that Riddell will apply his imaginative style to the role, as he outlined his manifesto on the Waterstone’s blog. Political parties take note: as with the very best children’s fiction, Riddell’s “Five Point Plan” is precise, concise and doesn’t over promise.

Five point plan

He has some big shoes to fill, though. His predecessors, all well-respected names in childhood literature, have each made their own mark during their tenure.

Here’s how:

2013-2015: Malorie Blackman

Blackman is a prolific writer whose well-established writing career has produced no fewer than 60 books for children and young adults including her best known title Noughts & Crosses.

She was no slouch as Children’s Laureate either, setting up the first UK Young Adult Literature Convention. She also launched a competition to find the UK’s most creative teenage storytellers.

2011-2013: Julia Donaldson

A whole generation will grow up to take their own children on Gruffalo hunts, thanks to Julia Donaldson’s enduring classic. It certainly featured strongly in our household, and devotion to her many other stories swiftly followed.

She was a passionate advocate for libraries during her two-year reign, and she also developed a programme of performance encouraging children to sing and act out stories. She developed a suite of online resources to help inspire teachers to put on plays with their classes.

2009-2011: Anthony Browne

Sixth Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne is a writer and illustrator of around 40 titles. He was keen to promote visual and verbal literacy and created the Shape Game Project which brought together writers, illustrators, educators, booksellers and celebrities to help encourage children to use their imaginations and develop their creative thinking skills. The project raised money for the Rainbow Trust and culminated in the publication of a new book.

An exhibition celebrating his illustrated books was also staged.

2007-2009: Michael Rosen

Children’s poet and performer Rosen has long been a vocal campaigner and advocate for children’s literacy and education standards in the media so was surely a natural choice for this role.

He focused on poetry throughout his appointment and developed a suite of classroom resources designed to bring poetry back into teaching. He also founded the Roald Dahl Funny Prize as part of his laureateship.

2005-2007: Jaqueline Wilson

Wilson is famous for her novels that so sensitively tackle some of the hardships of growing up. Her work truly struck a chord with a generation. Her books were rarely out of the bestseller lists during the 2000s and she regularly received a rock star’s reception at her book signings.

As Children’s Laureate, Wilson was passionate about encouraging families to read together and developed the Great Books to Read Aloud during her time in the role.

2003-2005: Michael Morpurgo

Although there’s more to Morpurgo than War Horse, it was certainly that story and its subsequent film and stage adaptations, that put him on the map.

Morpurgo and the late poet Ted Hughes were credited with creating the Children’s Laureate role following a discussion between the two men about celebrating excellence in children’s writing.

When it was his turn to take up the mantel of Children’s Laureate he was keen to put “literature” before “literacy” and go back to instilling a love of reading into our children.

2001-2003: Anne Fine

Fine has made a significant contribution to the children’s literature canon, and has been writing since 1978.

Fine toured the UK extensively to promote the importance of reading and raise the profile of libraries.

1999-2001: Quentin Blake

The very first Children’s Laureate was the inimitable Quentin Blake, whose distinct illustrations have brought Roald Dahl’s famous tales very much to like. It’s difficult to think of the BFG without conjuring up Blake’s gangly creation to mind.

Blake has since been made OBE and CBE for services to Children’s Literature.

As Laureate, he selected work for the first Children’s Laureate exhibition and also spent a year collaborating on a project to produce a book about environmental and humanitarian issues, Un Bateau dans le Ciel (A Sailing Boat in the Sky), amongst other books.

Find out more about the Children’s Laureate.

Find out more about Chris Riddell.

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